Britain needs a major poetry prize for innovative writing like the Turner Prize

In architecture, and in plastic arts such as painting and design, Britain leads the world, in innovation - and high-profile, and controversial - prizes, often connected to handsome cash payouts. The Turner Prize is a leading example. Critics of these prizes tend to argue the gongs and nods go to the more experimental, cutting-edge, and contemporary practitioners - and not those who support more traditional, even outdated, modes. Not so in the British poetry world, where the key prizes - TS Eliot, Forward, and Costa spring to mind - are almost always given to good, traditional, mainstream poets. In otherwords, and perhaps paradoxically, it is the innovators who tend to be excluded. Now, I am sure these innovative writers likely don't ask their presses (Barque, say, or Reality Street) to submit their work, all the time - and there is a legitimate oppositional tendency among the experimentalists that would, I think, tend to recommend against the giving of such awards - however, as The Griffin in Canada evidences - it is possible to have a popular, rich prize that also recognises literary pioneering. What would such a prize be called? How about "The Bunting"? Time to start seeking sponsors.


The Editors said…
Yes, I agree, and I've often wondered why the alternative wing(s) of the British poetry scene didn't pool their resources to create a kind of anti-Forward (a Backward? No, doesn't sound inviting enough). Part of the problem, and this is linked to the Forward in particular, is the rather closed quality whereby former winners are admitted to the judging panel, which means, more often than not, that certain styles will dominate as certain publishing houses or groups of poets are given positions of authority again and again. This is not a paranoid rant, by the way, just an observation. (That said, Luke Kennard's recent appearance on the Forward shortlist suggests things are opening up a little, due in no small part I think to the increasing visibility of Salt books).

There is another argument in favour of saying that literary prizes dominate in a critical vacuum. The alternative poetries in this country operate in anything but a critical vacuum - creating, as the modernists did before them, the means by which their work can be appreciated - whereas the mainstream do not have theory in their favour, only press coverage and awards. Aesthetics reduced to measurable commercial success. But that's a matter for an entirely different post, I think.

BTW, though I like 'The Bunting' as a possible name, but prefer 'Cobbing': 'He had three Cobbings under his belt before he was forty'; 'Did you hear? Denise Riley just bagged a Cobbing?' See? Sounds fantastic.

Simon Turner, Gists and Piths
It would be interesting to list all the poetry prizes over the yrs and see how the mix was. How many of the geniuses of yesteryear were picked through who they knew and how many on talent alone..

The funniest one was Sinead Morrisey winning the PS prize of 5 large, picked by her publisher.

Personally i think prizes are a side show. important for the economic health of poets who are lucky enough to win them, but now it is like the education policies in the uk. the career route is send a manuscript to a person who icks you, for any number of reasons, not just the strength of one's verse, human nature suggests; then they pump you up before you have learned yr trade and the poet gets feted as the next messiah.

Everyone wants to be a prize winning poet, but essentially it just means such a one chose you, and beyond that, the poetry itself does the impressing of the plebs who are not poets themselves. our public.
Anonymous said…
Actually, I reckon an alternative prize would make a difference -anything that ignores dusty ol' O'Brien is of course an entirely necessary and good thing. Anything that alerts people (readers and poets themselves) to a different sort of poetry is pretty worthwhile.

Mark Granier said…
The Cobbing? Nah. The Silliman, of course. And/or The Sillywoman.

'Did you hear? Denise Riley just bagged a Silly?'
'Wow. How many Sillies does she have now?'
'Not as many as Monk.'

Another possible would be the Armantrout (or The Trout):
'I hear Riley hooked another Trout.'

Has a ring to it, no?
The Editors said…
M, I agree that it would be nice to see an alternative to the rather staid mainstream prizes - that O'Brien got both the Eliot and the Forward sets a troubling precedent, frankly, aside from what anyone might think of his writing - but ideally what should happen first is an opening up of critical reception within the mainstream media. There was a brief 'golden age' - and this is, obviously, overstated - when Potts and Herd had both Poetry Review and the Guardian Review poetry pages under their belts. Their tenure at both publications was by no means ideal, but was open to both mainstream and alternative poetries, and offers one possible direction that the poetry scene could go in: openness and dialogue rather than violent rhetoric and sectarianism.

An alternative prize would, in some regards, be like the nuclear power option: perhaps a good short term solution, but ultimately damaging in the long-run. Ideally, a critical environment where the TLS and the Guardian Review gave equal coverage - or, indeed, any coverage at all - to less mainstream poets would (hopefully) pave the way for a prize giving culture where John James or Maggie O'Sullivan would be just as likely to win the Forward as Carol Ann Duffy or Don Paterson. That could be hopelessly idealistic and utopian, however, but I live in hope.

Oh, and it's gotta be the Trout: the Trout is fantastic.

Simon Turner, Gists and Piths

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